On Becoming Torturers

14 Feb

by Deliriumliberty

Naming and Claiming

The difference between pornography and eroticism, they say, is all in the lighting.  It could just as well be said to be “all in the naming”.  A person degraded or commodified through language is easier to exploit, points out Winona LaDuke in Recovering the Sacred.  The insight that language carries a hidden yet considerable power to validate or to diminish, with its momentous implications, should not sneak past us.

Along with porno-linguistics, the example of propaganda demonstrates the power of language to collapse the delicate anatomy of humanity into exploitable forms.  Whether it’s Japanese on Americans, Americans on Japs or Krauts on Kikes, war propaganda harnesses the power of naming in order to transform the other into a beast, making killing him easier.  Since the language of propaganda is deliberately fashioned to disempower perception, the claim that it might be used for good is moot.  The cancer is in the marrow, in the way propaganda portrays and names.

In science and psychology, often speaking reductionist tongues, the power of naming comes off to some degree as incidental and inevitable.  But when humans are described in reductionist terms, as machines with mechanical components, there’s a concern that humanity may be dismissed just as if they were dehumanized deliberately and ritually.  Recall that the Third Reich’s euthanasia program, headed up by psychiatrists, claimed something on the order of 40,000 lives before 1941 (along with a great many more later on).  A legitimate qualification may be raised in that motivations outside of science may be charged as the proper source of scientific languages of reductionism.  In The Case Against B. F. Skinner Noam Chomsky testifies that colonialism had a hand in shaping nineteenth century sciences.  He goes on to lay a finger on a feature of modern determinism.

Consider . . . a generalized version of the pseudo-science of the nineteenth century: it is not merely the heathen Chinese who are malleable by nature, but rather all people. Science has revealed that it is an illusion to speak of “freedom” and “dignity.” What a person does is fully determined by his genetic endowment and history of “reinforcement.” Therefore we should make use of the best behavioral technology to shape and control behavior.

Picture a great, bespectacled psychologist in a white coat stooping over caged, scruffy, rat-like people.  That psychologist, it must be pointed out, is both producing languages to describe his interpretations while also imposing his worldview on that language.  Freud comes to mind; conjuring up terms for understanding the human unconscious, he also implanted his own mindset, that is, of a man who cut his teeth studying the reproductive systems of eels.

Reverse Engineering SERE

During George Bush’s War on Terror, a frightening breed of eel was discovered  called “a high-value detainee”  In July of 2005, Jane Mayer of The New Yorker referred to a trickle of reports that psychologists had been advising Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCTs) in how prime these high-value detainees with “enhanced interrogation techniques”.  As Mayer followed up, the trickle swelled into a torrent, and implications arose in connection with a military training program used at Fort Bragg entitled SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, and escape).

(In the sere program) trainees are hooded; their sleep patterns are disrupted; they are starved for extended periods; they are stripped of their clothes; they are exposed to extreme temperatures; and they are subjected to harsh interrogations by officials impersonating enemy captors . . .. According to (a) sere affiliate and two other sources familiar with the program, after September 11th several psychologists versed in sere techniques began advising interrogators at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.

The SERE training program, according to Mayer’s sources, had been “reverse engineered” in order to “stimulate acute anxiety” in detainees.  The name Bruce Mitchell kept surfacing.  A SERE psychologist who had been working with the government since 911, Mitchell based his ideas on a set of experiments conducted by the renowned psychologist, Martin Seligman.

Mayer reported that at one point,

Mitchell announced that (a) suspect needed to be subjected to rougher methods. The man should be treated like the dogs in a classic behavioral-psychology experiment, he said, referring to studies performed in the nineteen-sixties by Martin Seligman.

That psychologists were involved became irrefutable by 2005.  According to the 2007 Defense Department’s (DoD) Inspector General report, the Army Special Operations Command’s Psychological Directorate at Fort Bragg “first drafted a plan to have the military reverse-engineer SERE training in the summer of 2002.  At the same time, the commander of Guantanamo determined that SERE tactics might be used on detainees at the military prison.”  SERE’s original purpose had been to prepare pilots and special forces for possible capture by an enemy that didn’t follow the Geneva Conventions.  The accounts of SERE graduates prefigured reports that began coming out of Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

When soldiers are brought to the mock prison . . . they are isolated in rows of small pens too small to fully recline or stand up. They are kept awake for days, moved about with bags on their heads, stripped naked and interrogated using techniques to provoke humiliation and shame. . . . Stress positions . . . are often employed at SERE school. Soldiers are forced into a squatting position with both palms facing up, or an excruciating half crouch with arms extended out straight, called the Iron Man. After a while, “Your legs go numb. Your knees go numb. Your feet tingle . . ..”

Mark Benjiman avers that the section of training with mock interrogations and torture was inspired by communist interrogations designed to force false confessions. An irony lurks here, perhaps lost on the architects.  Was is not predictable that the reverse-engineering of SERE earn the engineers themselves the reproach befitting their assumed enemies?

With the release of the OIG’s report, it is now irrefutable that both SERE psychologists and Guantanamo BSCT psychologists were involved (and that these) forms of interrogation . . . clearly constitute psychological torture and were illegal under the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and various US laws.

Explicit descriptions of abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay came out in detail in 2007, in a report from the International Committee of the Red Cross.  Among other abuses carried out against fourteen “high-value” prisoners, the chapters describe in detail “suffocation by water”, “prolonged stress standing”, “beatings by use of a collar”, “beating and kicking”, “confinement in a box”, “prolonged nudity”, “sleep deprivation and use of loud music”, “exposure to cold temperature and cold water”, “prolonged use of handcuffs and shackles”, “threats”, “forced shaving”, and “deprivation and restriction of solid food”.

Abu Zubaydah, whose importance in any terrorist network was “hideously overstated” was unfortunately not privy to the psychologists’ assurances that the techniques used would not harm him.

I was put on what looked like a hospital bed, and strapped down very tightly with belts. A black cloth was then placed over my face and the interrogators used a mineral water bottle to pour water on the cloth so that I could not breathe. After a few minutes the cloth was removed and the bed was rotated into an upright position. The pressure of the straps on my wounds caused severe pain. I vomited. The bed was then again lowered to a horizontal position and the same torture carried out.

During one session, Zubaydah was forced into a box like a coffin:

The box was totally black on the inside as well as the outside…. They put a cloth or cover over the outside of the box to cut out the light and restrict my air supply. It was difficult to breathe. When I was let out of the box I saw that one of the walls of the room had been covered with plywood sheeting. From now on it was against this wall that I was then smashed with the towel around my neck.

After this beating, Abu Zubaydah was placed in a small box approximately three feet tall.

They placed a cloth or cover over the box to cut out all light and restrict my air supply. As it was not high enough even to sit upright, I had to crouch down. It was very difficult because of my wounds. The stress on my legs held in this position meant my wounds both in the leg and stomach became very painful. I think this occurred about three months after my last operation. It was always cold in the room, but when the cover was placed over the box it made it hot and sweaty inside. The wound on my leg began to open and started to bleed. I don’t know how long I remained in the small box; I think I may have slept or maybe fainted.

The Psychologists

The responsibility of psychologists should not be understood as simply that of hired thugs.  According to NPR’s Ari Shapiro the SERE psychologists had been lobbying for the approval of SERE techniques at Guantanamo before the “torture memos” of August in 2002, and therefore played a real role in driving the process forward.

Each day, Mitchell would request permission to use enhanced interrogation techniques on Zubaydah. The source says the CIA would then forward the request to the White House, where White House counsel Alberto Gonzales would sign off on the technique.

According to Vanity Fair’s Katherine Eban, it was the seduction of getting in on the bigtime that brought two psychologists humbugging their way into narrow circles of CIA power.  James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen had been involved with SERE training for the air force in Spokane, Washington.  With SERE credentials to back them up, Mitchell and Jessen set out as private contractors, opening the consulting company LL Knowledge Works, a facility in Spokane that “principally instructs interrogators on how to break down detainees.”  The firm was large, secure, and secretive with 120 employees.  To the CIA, in the age of the War on Terror, these were “experts” with the keys to the human mind and solutions for dealing with the tough customers on the global battlefield of the War on Terror.

Mitchell and Jessen . . . offered a “patina of pseudo-science that made the C.I.A. and military officials think these guys were experts in unlocking the human mind. It’s one thing to say, ‘Take off the gloves.’ It’s another to say there was a science to it.  SERE came in as the science.

Ultimately, It was Mitchell who trained interrogators at CIA black sites along with Jessen– and Mitchell who would head up the team that interrogated Abu Zubaydah.

Martin Seligman’s theory of “learned helplessness” served as a significant influence in persuading the CIA that Mitchell and Jessen could engineer wizardly results during interrogations.  A July 2009 report by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility says that “The express goal of the CIA interrogation program was to induce a state of “learned helplessness,”  The method was for the  interrogators to systematically “break down the detainees through isolation, white noise, completely take away their ability to predict the future, create dependence on interrogators.”

Abu Zubaydah–who after being waterboarded 83 times was reduced to hearing voices and talking to invisible persons–may well stand as an example of learned helplessness.  What’s more difficult to understand is how the CIA would surmise that such a state of mind could lead to something other than babbling incoherence.

Enter the Grandfather

The very Martin Seligman of learned-helpless fame, not entirely a stranger in military and CIA circles, may have tipped the CIA toward placing their confidence in the SERE psychologists.  In December, 2001, James Mitchell was at a meeting at Seligman’s house.  Also in attendance was an “Israeli Intelligence Person” and Kirk Hubbard, at that time director of the CIA’s Behavioral Science Research.  In 2002,  Seligman delivered a three-hour lecture at a SERE training camp, a lecture attended by Mitchell and Jessen.  Seligman has stated that the 2001 meeting did not cover interrogations or coercive techniques and that the lecture was for the purposes of speaking on how “American troops and American personnel could use what is known about learned helplessness to resist torture and evade successful interrogation by their captors.”

Whatever the degree of Seligman’s direct involvement with interrogation procedure, his indirect influence is profound.  For the last few decades, Seligman, has been trying out his Positive Psychology, “the science of happiness” on educational and corporate systems.  During tough times “Capitalize on your strengths”, says a business week article while educational sites explain that praise and rewards enable students to “feel in control”.  Positive Psychology is useful for training the military because, according to Seligman,

Psychology has given us this whole language of pathology, so that a soldier in tears after seeing someone killed thinks, ‘Something’s wrong with me; I have post-traumatic stress,’ or PTSD . . ..The idea here is to give people a new vocabulary, to speak in terms of resilience. Most people who experience trauma don’t end up with PTSD; many experience post-traumatic growth.

Apparently, the military agrees with Seligman, having awarded his foundation a 31 million dollar contract for “resilience training”, coaching soldiers to acknowledge a higher power and to look on the bright side to bear up under the hell of war.  While the discipline of capitalizing on positive thinking in trying circumstances is not exactly novel–as anyone who has read Epictetus or Norman Vincent Peale knows–Martin Seligman’s brand of “Don’t worry; be happy” claims the distinction of being tested in a crucible of genuine suffering.

Seligman’s claim to fame comes largely from his 1967 experiment on 150 dogs.  Over the course of the experiment, electric shocks were administered to a portion of these dogs, some of whom could interrupt the shocks through pushing a lever.  Others, strapped in place and helpless, exhibited signs of depression over time.  Eventually, the traumatized dogs were given an escape route–yet around two-thirds of them displayed an inability to react.  Apparently, these dogs were pessimists, and those who leapt free, optimists.

Just prior to his dog experiments, Seligman had been testing aversion therapy.  That was 1966, when sodomy laws could still get you thrown into a mental institution.  In order to exterminate their deviant, homosexual urges, Seligman exposed gay men to unpleasant stimuli such as a smelling salts or emetics in conjunction with gay porn.  Though Seligman reported that some of the men were able to change their behavior, it later came out to be true only of the bisexual men in the experiment.  (One wonders if Seligamn failed to  induce learned helplessness in his subjects because gays are too optimistic).

The Torture Memos

The use of clinical and euphemistic language explicitly to allow torture sees its highest manifestation in the 2002 memoranda familiarly known as “the torture memos”.  The first of the memos, dated August 1, 2002 and addressed from Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee to House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, provides a legal basis for enhanced interrogations.  It amounts to an almost risibly Kafkaesque legal opinion circumventing US Code sections 3640-3640a of article 18 and its clear definition of torture.

The second of the memos, also dated August 1, is directed to John Rizzo and responds to a wish to bring the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah to “an increased pressure phase” involving ten techniques beginning with the “attention grasp” and moving on up to waterboarding.  The state purpose of selecting such techniques was to avoid “death, organ failure, of serious impairment of bodily functions” or psychological harm that would last for “months or even years”.

The “ticking time-bomb defense”  presented all three memos is that the techniques were required in the face of extraordinary danger and urgency.  The second memo, surgically demarcates a borderline between mere inhumane treatment and the real McCoy of torture (pausing here and there to dwell on the ultimate well-being of the prisoner).  It evinces a desire to package inhumane techniques in such a way as to keep everyone’s hands clean.

The actual result was to apply the seal of good housekeeping torture, to raise it up into an unofficial institution–an alternative to the Geneva Conventions.  The alterations applied during the Bush administration serve as a reference inciting unofficial and even harsher uses.  Currently around 100 deaths are known to have occurred among prisoners at Guantanamo, Bagram, Anu Graib, and other sites, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Tony Lagouranis describes to PBS frontline that thousands of instances of torture occurred outside any official context.

The worst stuff I saw was from the detaining units who would torture people in their homes. They were using things like … burns. They would smash people’s feet with the back of an axe-head. They would break bones, ribs, you know. That was serious stuff . . ..  I remember one guy who was forced to sit on an exhaust pipe on a Humvee, and he had a pretty huge blister on his leg. Another guy, I don’t know what they used to burn him, his legs. He was blindfolded so he didn’t know either, but it looked like it might have been a lighter.

The proliferation of abuse loosed through the torture memos invokes those psychologists and attorneys who worked to make torture digestible, to tame it for our civilization.  As in propaganda, profound human impulses, the desire to protect the innocent, the desire to defend our own, have no doubt been harnessed.

In escapist literature, there’s always a cathartic nerve tickled when a Dirty Harry tortures a murderous scumbag in order to save the buried sylph.  But a refusal to make a distinction between reality and fantasy may imply a grave transition as torture becomes codified, as it were, in the collective understanding.  Designating someone an “enemy combatant”, we cast him or her outside the territory of basic, human guarantees while placing ourselves in the position of the victim.  This delusion cannot lead to a place of safety.  It is continued cycles of violence–more burned flags, more shouts of death to America–that come through degrading and torturing others.  Peace and security can only arrive through learning to pronounce the word “human” while intending all of the hope and kindness that word deserves.


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